Review: Wendy Houstoun in 50 Acts at Jackson's Lane Theatre

Performance: 19 July 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Friday 22 July 2011

Wendy Houstoun '50 Acts'

Wendy Houstoun presses a microphone to her racing pulse, fresh from a manic sprint around the Jackson’s Lane stage, and hears the ominous sound of time ticking away. Sometimes, in more anxious moments, the sound becomes that of an ambulance siren wailing. She is worried about aging, about needing to keep limber, about becoming a burden on the NHS; she is worried about dying without dignity, forgotten in a care home. She is worried about the dissolution of the creative arts into a series of well-meaning community initiatives that value social impact over creativity. Concerned but defiant, Houstoun’s defiance manifests in 50 short, one-woman “acts” that are at once performance acts and political actions.

Some of the acts are short and reflexive. “This is the part where the lights go down”, Houstoun says, as the lights indeed darken; “and this is the part where I walk to the back of the stage”. Those two short sentences, with accompanying pedestrian actions, make up Acts 1 and 2. Other acts are longer and more complex. Houstoun welcomes “random technical exercises” into her performance, extending a leg and curving the spine in the manner of “someone half my age” (and she’s not wrong there). She shuns “gentle dance classes” meant for older people and narrates her story with fluid, Kathak-like gestures and engaging poses.

As somebody who flinched at the Blue Monday scene in Shaun of the Dead, I found the sequence in which Houstoun smashes vinyl records in time to a classical score innately hard to watch; there was something intensely nihilistic in the act of meaningless destruction, which ended with a voice on an answerphone message repeatedly saying goodbye as if fading away from this mortal plane. The invisibility of older people in society was a recurring theme of the evening – Houstoun made verbal reference to recent scandals at Southern Cross care homes, and repeatedly gestured towards empty spaces supposedly occupied by human bodies that can no longer be seen.

A second recurring motif was the use of the word “yes” in the script – yes to things that sound healthy and holistic, like yoga and dance technique; and yes to things that sound less welcome, such as “the rat-race”. Following a rapid monologue of many “yes“es Houstoun spins in a circle, arms outstretched, seeming to invite the universe toward her; a gunshot sounds on the soundtrack and the perfomer falls, stricken, only to stand up and keep going. The sequence is repeated again and again – Houstoun whirling, shots firing, the performer doggedly continuing. Others in the audience laughed, but I found the seeming comment on positive aspirations and beautiful actions being repeatedly shot down profoundly uncomfortable.

A manifesto, a commitment to action, and a series of small demonstrations, 50 Acts is a direct and unabashedly left-wing piece of theatre ending with a long comment on coalition spending cuts. The content will not appeal to all theatre-goers, but Houston is never less than totally watchable as a performer, and the message – about the treatment of older people and the uses (or misuses) of art – has never been more vital. Above all, by using the word “yes” throughout the show as a model of positive acceptance in bleak and troubling times, Houstoun demonstrates just what an act of defiance uttering this simple word has become.

What’s On